Dear Captain Awkward,
I’m in a wonderful, 5-1/2 year relationship with a great guy. It’s not all sunshine and roses (what relationship is?) but we’ve built a solid, great thing based on mutual respect, and I’m 100% sure he’s the one I want to spend the rest of my life with/meld my DNA with in eventual babies/what-have-you. I appreciate this, since I was coming out of a sexually abusive relationship when I met him, and really, it shows me that he’s a truly special guy to be patient with me through all the healing I had to go through to get to the point where I could have a healthy relationship with anyone. Bottom line, there’s no question of me leaving this guy.
However. His family (and circle of longtime family friends) are all terrible people.
I don’t mean this in the casual, don’t-get-along-with-the-mother-in-law way. I mean really terrible. A list of events that have happened only in the last year:
1) His father disagreed with me on a political issue I brought up casually, to someone else (he overheard me talking to them). He then screamed at me and called me names. He finished up by telling me I wasn’t allowed to speak in his house any more. For the rest of the day, if he heard me talking or trying to join a conversation, he would loudly talk over me until I stopped trying to speak. Seriously. A 60-year-old man did this.
2) We ran into a financial crisis due to some unexpected and urgent medical bills which we didn’t have the money to pay for (my fiance was unemployed for almost two years and I work in the low-paying world of non-profit office administration, so we have been pretty strapped for cash for some time). However, my fiance was due to come into some money he had inherited from his grandfather, and asked his mother (the executrix) whether he could get the check – which according to the terms of his grandfather’s will he should have received almost a year ago, but whatever, estate distribution can take time. She then informed him that she was deliberately withholding the money from him, and that she was thinking of giving the money to his 12-year-old brother instead (in direct violation of the will) just because she didn’t want my fiance to get this money and turn all lazy and dependent and stay unemployed forever. (Incidentally, he’s been working in construction and manual labor – despite having a master’s degree in education – just to make ends meet…not exactly the sort of guy who’s in danger of becoming a leech sucking from the teats of hardworking Americans or whatever she’s afraid of.) Long story short, we DIDN’T make rent that month, were threatened with eviction, and would have become homeless were it not for a loan from a good friend. When told that their son was on the brink of being a homeless person, his parents suggested that he seek therapy for his inability to accept blame for his own mistakes.
3) His sister and several family friends (all of whom he’s known since kindergarten and are like siblings to him) invited themselves over to my apartment while they thought I was at work to throw a party without asking or informing me. (One of these friends was crashing with us in our spare room while he looked for a new place to live.) The house was admittedly a mess – I wasn’t expecting company, so hadn’t cleaned, and there was a gigantic pile of dirty dishes in the kitchen. However, I happened to be home sick with the flu that day, and was sleeping in the bedroom. They had no idea that I was at home and could hear every word they said, and so proceeded to badmouth me in every conceivable way while I listened from my bedroom – saying that my house was so filthy they were embarrassed to know me (and presumably, to use my house without my consent for parties), that I should be on a reality TV show due to my hideous housekeeping skills, that I was fat and ugly, that I was a closet lesbian (I’m actually an out-and-proud bisexual), etc etc etc. I staggered out of my sickbed and confronted them, threw them all out of the house, and called my fiance. He asked them for an apology, which they refused to give because “everything we said about her was true, so she has no right to be offended. We’re just sorry she had to hear it from us.” Since then, I’ve been explicitly uninvited from several family parties because I was so mean to all these poor people, and they’d rather associate with the Asshole Brigade than with me.
I reiterate – this is all just within the year. There have been 5-1/2 years of bullshit, directed both at me AND at my fiance. He’s been going through major therapy to undo all the damage his emotionally abusive parents have done over the years – in fact every one of his siblings has major psychological problems, from schizophrenia to eating disorders, and knowing his parents it doesn’t surprise me a bit.
Now, by and large, my fiance is a very sweet guy. But he is fiercely loyal – and unfortunately, his first loyalty is to his family. He fully acknowledges that they are horrible. However, every conversation I have with him about this always turns back to what a bitch I am, and how hard I make it for them to be nice to me. He’s blamed me for “driving away” the friends who broke into our home and partied in it without asking, when they’re the ones who chose to uninvite me from all their events. (To be fair, I wouldn’t have hung out with them anyway.) He’s blamed me for provoking his father into screaming at me (apparently, by having a private conversation with a different person in a different room which he then inserted himself into). He’s told me that I just have to deal with it, that he doesn’t want to hear it – has even gone so far as to leave the room in a huff if I so much as bring one of these incidents up.
I’m not really sure how to react to this. I’ve really put forth an effort to be nice to his parents. I’ve never called names back (or at all), never lost my temper and screamed at them, never told them what I really think. I’ve never passed up an opportunity to do them a favor, gone to every single family event even though there’s a 75% chance I’ll end up getting treated like shit, and been generally as nice as I possibly can while hating every single one of these people to the core of my being. Mostly because I realize that if I love my fiance, I’m stuck with them until they all die off. However, I will admit that after years and years of bullshit, I am finally getting to the point where it’s hard for me to interact nicely with these people. I’m still doing my best, but at this point my gut instinct is to avoid them like the plague, which is hard since they live really nearby (within a mile) and we’re not yet in a financial situation where we can seriously consider a move.
I get that he doesn’t like to confront the fact that his parents/best friends are terrible people. It’s really hard to admit that the people you love are awful. I also get that I can’t change them, and I don’t really intend to try. Really, what I want to know is: how do I convince him to stop gaslighting me, making me believe that I’m the whole problem and that his social circle are the unwilling victims of my bitchitude? I know, intellectually, that that isn’t true (and he claims he does as well), but it’s hard to keep believing that emotionally, in the moment, and I don’t know how to defend myself anymore. This is really the only ongoing problem our relationship has, but I’m sick of being the scapegoat for his family’s bizarre problems, and I don’t know how to get him to let go of the emotions and stop blaming me for their bad behavior. Short of couples therapy (which he’s very resistant to), I feel like we’ve been over this situation so many times that it’s impossible to have a sane, rational conversation about our respective situations without bringing up all our years of baggage around this issue – a recipe for relationship disaster if there ever was one. Even worse, I don’t want to continue down the Path of Bitch and wind up giving them actual fodder for all their hate and accusations – but I think they’re starting to wear me down, and I’m not sure how much I can take before snapping and doing something really awful (punches to the gut figure largely in my rage-fantasies/nightmare scenarios).
I’m pulling out the relationship flowchart for you.
Here’s the deal:
After 5.5 years you have all the information you need about how this will go and what is likely to happen. People are capable of some incremental change, but you really can’t make them change, and you can waste a lot of effort and a lot of time hanging in there hoping that they’ll change and silently willing and vocally asking them to change without changing a damn thing except your own sanity and stress levels.
A lot of people write in not sure that they have a problem or because they’re afraid to bring up the problem. That’s not you. There is a problem (the thing with his dad…wow). You’ve done the hard work of talking about the problem and asking for him to meet your needs. You’ve shown a lot of backbone, courage, and fortitude by standing up to people and throwing them out of your space when they are disrespectful. The downside of this is that you’re talked it out and it still hasn’t changed.
Relationships are about choice. So here are your choices:
Accept the status quo. Lower your expectations and accept that his shitty family and how he treats you around them is the price of admission for all the awesome stuff about the relationship that I can’t grasp through the internet. Accept that it’s not going to improve. This is how it’s always going to be.
Leave. Take some time to heal from the emotional abuse (that’s what’s going on here, btw). You will miss him and grieve for what might have been. However your life works out, you will be totally free of dealing with these people and having a partner who gaslights you and blames you for your mistreatment by his family.
You say in your first paragraph that you’re not leaving him. I want to be respectful of that, but I think he is not treating you well here (he’s not treating himself well, either – those often go hand-in-hand). Let me suggest a few interim measures designed to preserve your own sanity.
Ask for his best-case scenario. “Partner, I know you can’t control how your family treats me and the things they do are not your fault. But things are seriously grinding me down. I don’t want to rehash the past, so let’s focus on what we can do in the future. How do you see this working out over time? Do you think it will get better? What can we do to make it better? In your perfect ideal world, how will this all work?”
Don’t talk. Listen. Give him some time to come up with an answer. Let him be the one doing the emotional work of coming up with ways to make it better.
And then see if it’s a good plan. Is it a vision that jibes with your own dreams for the future?
Ask for a break from interacting with his family. Take your non-invitation to family parties for the sweet, sweet gift that it is. Make it your choice to stop going to family events. Stop trying. Stop being nice. Let your partner do all the work of dealing with his family and smoothing things over. Change your cell phone number – they should call only him. Change your email address – they should email only him. Change the locks on the house. They don’t get a key. He can remember their birthdays, shop for presents, keep track of what events are when, and bake the fucking cake to take to the pot luck. Script: “I need a break from dealing with your family for a bit. I’m going to bow out of social occasions for the next few months and see if we can’t reset things with a little time and space. You go on ahead and hang out with them, I’ll make other plans.”
Make some ground rules:
- He should use very neutral excuses for why you aren’t there. Don’t explain. Don’t exaggerate. Short and sweet: “Scapegoat couldn’t make it today but she said to tell you hello.” + Change of subject.
- If they say mean things about you, he should keep them to himself. He can be the buffer and protect you from their bile. You can’t control what they will do, but you get a say in whether you have to hear about it. Disengage.
- Put a time-limit on it. Three months, then you’ll re-evaluate. As in, in three months or so you’ll go to a family party for a few hours, but if anyone is mean to you, you’re allowed to GTFO of there with his full backing. “Sorry we can’t stay, maybe next time.“
- If his dad yells at you again (ever), you can say “You don’t get to talk to me that way,” stand up, walk out of the room, walk out of the house, and keep walking. People like that are going to behave terribly no matter what you do and then blame it all on you. If your partner would like to stay as your partner, he should learn to say “Really, Dad?” and walk out right after you.
Seek help and support for yourself. You say he’s in therapy, what about you? You need someone on your side. What about your friends? Put some time into seeking activities you do without him, without his family, without asshole friends.
Ask the hard question. If your best friend or future adult child were in this situation, being mistreated and ground down by a situation like this, what would you tell him or her to do? I think you know the answer to this, so ask yourself (and your therapist) why it’s so hard to see yourself as deserving that same love, compassion, and fierce protective instinct.
I know that right now the thought of walking away from this person you love, especially after so much time, is really scary and sad and feels impossible to contemplate. But the way we enforce boundaries is by following through on ending a conversation or absenting ourselves from a situation when we need to protect ourselves. It’s great that he helped you get over some of the bad treatment you suffered at the hands of others and feel whole again, and I can see why that is a powerful bond. That gratitude is real, those ties are real, the love you share is real.
But you don’t owe him the rest of your life to be treated poorly and then made to feel like it’s your fault in exchange for that. To invoke Friend of Blog Sheelzebub, could you put up with things being exactly like this for another year? Another 5 years? Another 10? Forever? And I feel like it’s a cheap shot to invoke your theoretical kids, but any small future DNA-sharing beings are going to be part of that shitty family, with maybe you as their only advocate and protector.
Here’s an old letter that approached this from the perspective of the person with the shitty family, maybe it will give the two of you something to work with as a framework for how he can negotiate better with his family, but ultimately he’s the one who has to do the work. Can you trust him to do it?
My strong, honest, personal opinion is that you should seek therapy of your own and start making plans to leave this relationship behind within the next six months. I am really pessimistic about things getting better. But the choice is yours. So. Commenters, listen up. I’m going to specifically ask everyone to not use the letters “d”, “t”, “m”, “f,” and “a” or variations thereof in your responses. It’s really easy to say that when it’s not your life and it doesn’t actually help the Letter Writer to be patronized by strangers.
Some things I’d like to see here are:
1. Were you able to get a partner to make a big change around something like this? If so, what worked both in terms of helping them make the change and taking care of yourself in the meantime?
2. Were you able to leave an important, serious relationship that wasn’t working and then rebuild your life into something happier? If so, what worked?